On Not Being Defensive

In an Open Letter to the Evangelical Church, Asian American evangelicals say that racism must stop. They lay out some examples in recent years of particularly offensive and publicized racial stereotyping of Asian cultures, and add 

“Although it is beyond unfortunate that these incidents happened at all, in many cases the reactions from the parties responsible towards the Asian Americans who have challenged them have been even worse than the initial stereotyping and ignorance.”

And so, after being explicitly told that the reactions toward those who challenge racism have been more damaging than the original racism, what response did these leaders receive? Anne Joh, one of the signers, describes at NYTimes.com’s Room For Debate, that 

In yet another sign of callousness, Asian-Americans were initially told, in effect, to “get over it.” Instead, it is U.S. white Christians who must “get over” their whiteness and their failure to see the already changed face of Christian faith.

I am no stranger to defensiveness; I am a white, male, straight, cisgendered, educated, middle-class liberal, after all. But those who receive privilege must learn to receive criticism without immediately going into self-protection mode. When someone calls us out on something racist or otherwise oppressive, the first thing we must do is listen, assuming for a moment that the person is right. Even if we really don’t think so, we can at least engage it as a thought experiment. Clearly, someone else has been hurt; whether or not we are personally to blame is way less important than the other person’s injury. What would you call someone who, after being involved in a traffic accident where another person was injured, stands around describing all the reasons he is not to blame and explaining that the injured party really isn’t hurt all that bad? This term applies to us, every time we respond defensively when someone has the grace to trust us enough to say that we have hurt them.

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